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"The President of the United States is on the phone. Would you like to Hangout on Google+?"

Can a Google+ Hangout bring the president closer to the citizens he serves?

We’re suddenly very close to science fiction becoming reality television, live streamed to large and small screens around the world. On Monday, January 30th, 2012, the fireside chats that FDR hosted on citizens’ radios in the 20th century will have a digital analogue in the new millennium: President Barack Obama will host a Google+ Hangout from the West Wing, only a few weeks after the White House joined Google+.

Screenshot of President Obama sending a tweet through the @whitehouse account
A screenshot from July 6, 2011, of President Obama sending his first tweet through the @whitehouse account. On January 30, he’ll host the first president Hangout on Google+.

If you have a question for the president, you can ask it by submitting a video to the White House’s video channel, where you can also vote upon other questions. The president will be answering “several of the most popular questions that have been submitted through YouTube, and some of the people who submitted questions will even be invited to join the president in the Hangout and take part in the live conversation,” explained Kori Schulman, deputy director of digital content at the White House, at the White House blog.

The real-time presidency

This upcoming “President Hangout” offers a fascinating window into what bids to be a disruptive scenario for citizen-to-government (or citizen-to-citizen) communications in our near future. Mobile Hangouts on smartphones running the world’s biggest mobile operating system, Android, could enable citizens to connect to important conversations from wherever a call finds them.

Such town halls could be live streamed and shared through Facebook, Google+ or the White House’s iOS app, reaching hundreds of millions of people connected through mobile broadband connections. In the future, we might even see iOS cameras enable citizens to “get some FaceTime with the president” through his iPad. The quality of the video on the iPad 2 is poor now, as owners know, but what if Apple adds a camera to the iPad 3 as good as the one it added to the iPhone4S? That would enable instant video chat through 100m+ connected iOS devices, along with millions of MacBooks and iMacs that have webcams.

In that future, I can’t help but think of video phones from the “Jetsons.” Or “Blade Runner,” “Minority Report,” “The Fifth Element” or “Total Recall.’ Or, better yet, “Star Trek,” since Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a peaceful future is a lot better than the dystopian epics Philip K. Dick tended to write.

Style or open government substance?

The technology we have in our hands right now, of course, is pretty exciting. The prospect of a presidential Hangout has naturally been getting plenty of attention in the media, from CNET to Mashable to the L.A. Times to NextGov, where Joseph Marks has one of the smartest takes to date. In his post, Marks, a close observer of how the White House is using technology in support of open government, goes right to the heart of what analysts and the media should be asking: What does this mean and how will it work?

The administration is touting the Google Plus event as ‘the first completely-virtual interview from the White House.’ It’s not entirely clear what that means. It could signal merely that the president will respond directly to questioners’ YouTube videos rather than having them keyed up by a moderator. In past social media Town Halls conducted through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, Obama has typically shared the stage with a moderator who introduced and sometimes picked questions. If questioners are able to ask their questions directly, including follow-up questions through the Hangout feature, that would be a more significant innovation.

To put it another way, will the first presidential Google+ Hangout be about substance, or is this about burnishing the president ‘s tech-savvy image and credentials in an election year?

When I asked that question openly on Twitter, Gadi Ben Yehuda, who analyzes and teaches about the government’s use of social media for IBM, replied: “Both, I bet. Message is medium, after all. Style, in this case, is part of substance.”

As it happens, Macon Phillips, director of digital strategy at the White House, was also listening. “What criteria would you use to answer that question?” he asked. Noah Chestnut, director of digital media at Hamilton Place Strategies in D.C., suggested the following criteria: “Q’s asked, length + content of A’s, follow-up Q’s vs. cursory, who writes the process stories.”

As I analyze this new experiment in digital democracy, I will look at A) whether the questions answered were based upon the ones most citizens wanted asked and B) whether the answers were rehashed talking points or specific to the intent of the questions asked. That latter point was one fair critique I’ve seen levied by the writers at techPresident after the first “Twitter Townhall” last July.

In reply, Phillips tweeted: “Well, if the past 2 post-SOTU [State of the Union] events are any indication, you should be optimistic! One of the exciting things about the Hangout format is that conversational aspect.” As evidence for this assertion, Phillips linked to videos of YouTube interviews with President Obama after the 2010 and 2011 State of the Union addresses. The president answered questions sourced from the Google Moderator tool on the CitizenTube channel.

There are process questions that matter as well. Will Steve Grove, head of community partnerships at Google+, be asking the questions? Or will  the president himself respond directly to the questions of citizens?

Phillips replied that there will be a “little bit of both to involve both the voting prior and the participants during.” He also told the Associated Press that the White House would have no role in choosing the questions or participants in the Hangout. “For online engagement to be interesting, it has to be honest,” Phillips said. “We want to give Americans more control over this conversation and the chance to ask questions they care about.”

In other words, citizens will be able to ask the president questions directly via YouTube and, if chosen, may have the opportunity to join him in the Hangout. When I asked Phillips my own follow-up question, he suggested that “for specifics on format, better to connect w/@grove but we are planning for ?’s that are voted on & others asked live.”

I was unable to reach Grove. However, he told the Associated Press that the Hangout “will make for a really personal conversation with the president that’s never really happened before.”

Will there be #realtalk in real time?

Direct interactivity through a Hangout could also introduce that rare element that’s missing at many presidential appearances: unscripted moments. That’s what the editors of techPresident will be watching for in this new experiment. “Our prevailing hypothesis around here is that one great promise of the Internet in politics is to create unscripted moments, opportunities to yank politicians off of their talking points and into a confrontation with the real and complex problems America faces today,” wrote Nick Judd. “We saw this in July at the very end of the Twitter event with Obama. Reid Epstein saw a similar occurrence when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations took him to a New Hampshire diner, where he met a gay veteran who asked him about same-sex marriage. We’re hungrily looking for examples of this in the integrations of the Internet and of social media in presidential debates, and not finding many so far.”

What will be particularly interesting will be the opportunities that citizens have to ask follow-up questions on the Hangout if they’re not satisfied with an answer. That feedback loop is what tends to be missing from these online forums. Many citizens haven’t had the opportunity to ask informed, aggressive follow-up questions like, say, at a presidential press conference at the White House. The evolution of these platforms will occur when organizations stop “adopting” them and start actually using them. In this case, using the killer app of the Google+ platform to connect directly with the American people.

As of this morning, 30,594 people have submitted 16,047 questions and cast 208,431 votes. Currently, the most popular video questions are about stopping the PROTECT IP Act and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which would establish international standards for intellectual property. The top question comes from “Anonymous,” and asks “Mr. President, it’s all good and well that SOPA and PIPA are slowed down in Congress, but what are you doing about ACTA? This is an international agreement which could prove much more devastating.”

To date, President Obama, has not commented extensively on ACTA or either of these bills. If any of those questions are answered, it will indeed be evidence that the White House is listening and the president’s commitment “to creating a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration” using social media and technology is genuine.

A version of this post originally appeared on Google+.

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